Iowa Public Television


Immigration Raids One Year Later

posted on December 14, 2007

One year ago, federal agents raided six meatpacking plants operated by Greeley, Colorado-based Swift and Company and arrested nearly 1,300 workers.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE agents conducted the raids -- which would become the largest in U.S. history.

The arrests temporarily shut down operations at Swift facilities in six states as nearly nine percent of the workforce was detained for questioning.

In Marshalltown, Iowa, where officials say the investigation began months earlier, the raids left a lasting impression on Main Street. Andrew Batt visited Marshalltown one year after the raids and filed this report.


For the nearly 30,000 residents of Marshalltown, IA…December 12, 2006, was the day their town made national headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Sec. Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security: "Now this is not only a case about illegal immigration which is bad enough. It's a case about identity theft and the violation of privacy rights and the economic rights of innocent Americans."

One of Marshalltown's largest employers, the Swift & Company meatpacking plant, was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, a division of the Homeland Security Department. Agents arrested 90 workers believed to have entered the U.S. illegally.

Matt Whitaker, U.S. Attorney, Iowa Southern District: "The bottom line is if you want to have the most impact on illegal immigration you're going to go to where those immigrants are finding jobs."

Despite the federal government's tough talk against employers, one year after the raids meatpacking giant Swift & Company has yet to be charged with any crime.

Today, the Swift plant in Marshalltown is back to normal. Truckloads of hogs still pull up for processing and a steady stream of workers come and go from the front doors.

Whitaker: "Swift paid $2 an hour more after they realized that we were probably going to go in there and do something about their illegal workforce. I think that would suggest to most Iowans that hey we support higher wages…that we support a legal workforce because it's better for Iowa."

Nationally, Swift suffered $30 million in lost production in the days surrounding the raids. But members of the Marshalltown community claim the true damage was not economic…it was emotional.

Father Jim Miller, Pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church: "This raid didn't do anything good for Marshalltown. They took the workers. They didn't take anyone involved with drugs or gangs. They took the best and that's the sad thing about these raids. They took the best."

Marshalltown's religious community rallied behind the families affected and some even criticized the manner in which ICE agents arrested and deported the plant's workers. Marshalltown's mayor, Gene Beach, questions the motives behind the federal government's use of force.

Gene Beach, Marshalltown Mayor: "If they're going to seriously continue to do the raids they have to do the raids much more efficiently and more often then they're doing them. I may get in trouble for saying this: it's a little bit like ICE is willing to do a raid if it generates a great deal of publicity for them. Because then they can say we're dealing with the issue."

Dealing with immigration in small-town America is controversial. Despite immigration's importance in the minds of the American people, many local governments avoid the subject altogether.

But last February, Marshalltown embraced the topic by holding a national immigration summit.

Ted Kamatchus, Marshall County Sheriff: "The individuals who have come across that border form nothing more than a form of contraband to this country. And that same form of contraband brings us our drugs and could bring us weapons of mass destruction."

Carlos Rios, Executive Director of Immigrant Rights Network for Iowa and Nebraska: "Immigrants are human beings like you and me. They are more than just workers, they are family and members of our society and are an essential part of the fabric of the United States and the future of the United States."

Discussions at the summit covered everything from immigration enforcement and worker rights to creating a temporary worker program. But the ongoing case against workers from the Swift plant was not openly debated.

Critics claimed the town's immigrants were a strain on the local economy and that undocumented workers were siphoning away the lifeblood of a small Iowa community. Their mayor disagrees….

Gene Beach, Marshalltown Mayor: "But if you work at Swift, you're going to have FICA withheld and you're going to have W2 income withheld. Now if you don't file your taxes that income is to the government for free. We have 44 businesses in town that are Hispanic owned. They pay and collect sales taxes, they're paying property taxes, they're paying income taxes on that income so economically they're making a contribution. And for people to say they don't pay taxes – they just take and they're on welfare…they're wrong."

At Marshalltown High School, where minority students make up 35 percent of the entire student body, Principal Bonnie Lowry acknowledges that Hispanic immigrants may place a strain on educators. But she added its' not the high school's place to determine a student's immigration status.

Bonnie Lowry, Principal – Marshalltown High School: "…in the academic realm we're not concerned whether students are documented or undocumented. And that's kind of where education separates itself from other parts of our community."

In the days surrounding the raids, a small number of families removed their students from school. Lowry insists the affect on the school at large was minimal and the students that remain create a unique lesson in diversity.

Bonnie Lowry, Principal – Marshalltown High School: "I believe that we have undocumented students in this building that have great brains and they're good learners. Standing in their way to allow them to be the best adults that they can be seems a disservice to me."

So what has changed since the raids? At Marshalltown High School, where the hallway signs evenly display English and Spanish lettering, students and educators remain unaffected by the community's immigration debate.

At the Swift plant, company executives say they have not altered hiring practices. Last summer, Swift & Company was acquired by JBS, a leader in Central and South American meatpacking. The newly-merged JBS-Swift is now the world's largest meat processor.

On Capitol Hill, last summer's failed immigration policy appears to be the closest attempt at reform until after the 2008 election.

But at city hall, Mayor Gene Beach still is hoping for change…

Gene Beach, Marshalltown Mayor: "I guess I'm an incurable optimist. I think we have a chance of doing that and it's not just whether the Democrats who are in power or it's the Republicans. I think they're going to have to realize this is an issue that isn't going away and just burying your head in the sand isn't going to solve the problem."

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: communities crime economy emotions immigration Iowa jobs Marshalltown meat processing plants news